By Tom Wilson and Jim Boardman
On Saturday a senior Liverpool official made it perfectly clear that there was absolutely nothing to read from the fact that Reds boss Rafa Benítez was yet to meet new chairman Martin Broughton. He claimed it was all part of some plot to paint a false picture of disharmony at Anfield. He got on great with Rafa and Rafa was happy.
Even now it’s difficult to work out how he thought anyone would fall for that. Or why he seems to tell different stories to different people. People compare notes, compare what he’s told them, then shake their heads.
On Saturday the senior official said that there had been one meeting planned. It would have been ahead of the first-leg of the Europa League semi against Atlético Madrid, but volcanic ash put paid to that idea. When the call came out for the squad to meet up at Runcorn station, the meeting was unsurprisingly called off.
Obviously the new chairman is quite different to the last man to have the job all to himself. David Moores used to travel on the team bus with the squad; Martin Broughton doesn’t come across as someone who would feel comfortable slumming it across Europe in first class with the players.
According to the senior Liverpool official on Saturday, no other meeting had been scheduled so far. The first opportunity following the journey to Madrid would probably have been tied in with the return leg a week later, but with Rafa unavailable until after midnight it was decided, the senior official said, that there was no time for the chairman to meet the manager. Presumably the chairman – who of course has other responsibilities away from Liverpool FC – was unable to pop round to Melwood the following morning.
That following morning, the Friday, had been the day before the senior official was explaining why there hadn’t yet been a meeting. And at almost the exact time as the senior Liverpool official was explaining why there hadn’t been a meeting so far, the club’s official site was making it clear that the next opportunity for a meeting was also going to be missed.
Liverpool’s last home game of the season was the following day, the Sunday, against the team Martin Broughton has supported all his life, Chelsea. Broughton had presumably set off home early on Friday morning after watching the Atlético game, and he told the official site he wouldn’t be coming back up for that Chelsea match. He wasn’t even going to be in the city for the game, he didn’t want to be seen to celebrate any Chelsea goals. “The only sensible thing is for me to stay at home and watch it on the television,” he said.
So he wasn’t exactly making himself available for a meeting with Rafa, which in itself isn’t really a major issue. He’d cleared off before Rafa was available on the Thursday night, he didn’t stick around on Friday to meet then and he didn’t come back up on Saturday in preparation for the Sunday match, so no chance of squeezing a meeting in there.
Rafa did want to talk to him, but there clearly hadn’t been time. It was frustrating but understandable. Surely a meeting would be held before the week was out, with no game for Liverpool Rafa would have more room in his own diary to match up with Broughton’s no-doubt hectic schedule.
But then came the story on the BBC website, and other BBC outlets, soon to spread like wildfire around the rest of the media.
“Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez has cancelled two scheduled face-to-face meetings with the club’s new chairman, Martin Broughton,” wrote David Bond, the BBC’s replacement for Mihir Bose as Sports Editor.
Bond had the same title at the Telegraph before joining the BBC, but will be best remembered by Liverpool fans from his time as the paper’s Chief Sports Reporter. From knowing full details of Gillett and Hick’s refinancing deal with RBS before it was announced, to publishing emails DIC and Amanda Staveley had been sent by Hicks, Bond was clearly getting information from people inside and outside the club during that very turbulent period.
So who would be talking to him now? Whoever it was wanted to add more weight to the campaign to see Rafa hounded out of the club. “It is understood that he [Benítez] pulled out of talks with Broughton last week and another the week before,” wrote Bond.
As has just been explained, Rafa did not cancel any meetings with Broughton, and whatever any fan thinks of Benítez, or where his future should be, the fact that someone from Liverpool is trying to smear the manager should set alarm bells ringing loud and clear.
This is about far more than Rafael Benítez. This is just the latest in a long line of examples of the press being briefed about Rafa in a way that certainly wasn’t designed to be supportive of the manager. What other lies are being peddled?
Even Bond seemed to be unsure of exactly what the story was, writing: “It is not clear why Benitez cancelled the meetings with Broughton, although the last two weeks have been affected by preparations for Liverpool’s Europa League semi-final meetings with Atletico Madrid. The first week in particular was heavily disrupted as Benitez’s team were forced to make the long journey to the Spanish capital by road and rail after flights were grounded by ash from the Icelandic volcano.”
Benítez didn’t cancel the meetings, but if he had it was probably slightly more important he got on that train at Runcorn than staying back to meet Broughton. Even Rafa can’t be blamed for the volcanic ash. So why would someone at Anfield feed the BBC this “story”?
There aren’t too many candidates for the source of this latest leak. Bond said it came from a Liverpool board member: “There is some surprise inside the Anfield boardroom at the timing of Benitez’s call on Tuesday for an urgent meeting with Broughton to discuss the future.”
Bond was one of the first reporters to interview Martin Broughton after his appointment, so perhaps he is a candidate for this story being fed to the press. But Broughton wasn’t at the club when the earliest briefings against Rafa began, to other members of the press. Of course it’s always possible that somebody else told Broughton that Rafa had cancelled the meetings. Someone wary of Rafa actually getting to meet the chairman, and telling the chairman exactly what has been going on.
One subtle hint that somebody was talking out of turn came in one of the infamous Henry Winter columns. In November he wrote: “The impressive managing director, Christian Purslow, is not the type for knee-jerk reactions. But it is known around Anfield that Purslow has talked to Benítez about his style of management, notably his cold detachment from the players.”
So back in November someone from the club was telling Henry Winter that Benítez had been given a dressing-down by Purslow, that Benítez was being told how to manage his players, essentially being told how to do his job. And it’s as obvious as it looks exactly who it was that impressed this information on Winter.
That wasn’t all that Winter learned from his new source: “Liverpool can afford to sack Benítez,” wrote Winter. “Compensation would be less than £5 million under the ‘mitigating the loss’ principle if he found employment.” Which perhaps should now have Winter scratching his head as to why impressive people would be on the phone to him angrily criticising the manager instead of just sacking him.
And it’s not as if Winter wasn’t afforded the opportunity to ask that question. No prizes for guessing which senior Liverpool official spent a good part of the bank holiday weekend frantically phoning around trying to get his side, or one of his sides, of the story over. It was almost as if he was frightened that the truth might come out. And Winter had a chance to challenge this particular Liverpool board member on where his stories didn’t really add up. But some reporters would rather just take the information they’re fed and repeat it, hoping there’s plenty more where that came from, than question what they are being told.
Having managed to get so many column inches out of the politicking of a certain LFC board member, Winter completely missed the irony of his opening paragraph: “If Rafael Benítez truly respects Liverpool Football Club he’ll leave Anfield today. The players have lost the faith, the boardroom is unimpressed with the politicking and the supporters are suffering, albeit in silence.”
When the truth does come out about a certain LFC board member and his efforts to keep the truth from the supporters, perhaps that silence will be broken. And maybe that silence needs to be broken. Maybe the efforts to keep the attention on Benítez to take it away from the failings of the Managing Director and the owners he worked for need to be emphasised a little more. And that might just be a bit messy – but what’s new? That’s how it’s been at Anfield for some time. “If he stays, the inevitable long goodbye becomes indescribably messy, distressing for all concerned and demeaning to a club of Liverpool’s great history. This is not a warning for Benítez, this is a fact,” wrote Winter. The same fact applies, but much more strongly, to the club’s temporary MD.
Bill Shankly was the man who made Liverpool great, the man who brought so much of that “great history” to the club. Nobody knows what he would have made of Benitez; chances are he would have seen good and bad in him and he could well have been saying Rafa’s time was up by now. But it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to work out what he would have thought of the club’s owners. And it takes even less imagination to work out what he would have thought of Christian Purslow. And less still what he would have thought of the tactics employed by the club’s current custodian to force Rafa out.
Shanks would also have torn a strip off Henry Winter had he ever been unfortunate enough to cross his path. Winter wrote of Rafa: “He’s got a centre-back at left-back and a holding midfielder at right-back.” With the only two left-backs at the club injured, what else was Rafa meant to do? One thing Rafa tried was putting the right-back at left-back, which was why the holding midfielder played at right-back on the Thursday. By the Sunday the right-back was injured too, which is why the centre-back went to left-back, and the holding midfielder stayed at right-back. This isn’t a string of excuses; it’s just some simple facts. Liverpool have to make do and mend.
Christian Purlsow’s arrival coincided with spending on transfers that, going off the fees available in public, went from being “net spend” to “net profit”. Liverpool brought more in than went out last year. That’s the calendar year 2009.
When Winter used the phrase “How embarrassing,” in his article it surely should have been to describe his own willingness to stick up so transparently for his source in the Liverpool boardroom. And really his article didn’t deserve much more time than that, as went into some kind of rant out of sympathy to his new friend on the board at Anfield.
That new friend should have the balls to stand up in public and say what he’s saying privately to the press, if he truly believes it and feels it would stand up to scrutiny. But he knows that, despite claims to the contrary, most Liverpool fans either want Benítez to stay or only want him to leave because they feel he’s been worn down by the unnecessary pressures of the past few years. The vast majority of fans will always consider Benítez a hero, whatever happens.
And that is what frightens the board member. He knows that sooner or later the manager will blow him up for what he’s done. He knows that more and more people are starting to see through him. And he knows that if he sacks the manager he’ll never be forgiven.
Liverpool’s new chairman was appointed in a non-executive role. The senior Liverpool official constantly points out that the new chairman was appointed in that way, and that he has no control over the actual running of the club, that he’s merely there to sell the club.
But the senior Liverpool official fails to mention something very important about the role of a non-executive director. According to the government-commissioned Higgs report, non-executive directors “are responsible for… where necessary removing, senior management.”
Surely a senior Liverpool official briefing the press against the club’s manager, over such a sustained period, is grounds for his removal. His decision to bad-mouth the club’s owners, however accurate it might be, is hardly the best way to attract £100m of investment. And that was his major objective when appointed. Perhaps he wanted to delay the partial sale to prolong his own career as Mr Liverpool, to help build up that empire. Is this not also grounds for removal? To discuss transfer targets – even if they are his own, not the manager’s – with the press is also grounds for removal. The list goes on.
And that, Martin Broughton, is where you come in. You need to get to the bottom of this mess and you need to get to the bottom of it fast.
It’s not just your reputation that depends on it.